Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is entering his fifth year in Atlanta and has heard plenty of criticisms from around the league about his speed, arm strength and 0-3 record in the playoffs. Recently, he was left off an NFL Network list that ranked the league’s top 100 players.
Starters rest in Falcons’ first live scrimmage
SUWANEE — Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith held his starters out of the team’s first live tackling scrimmage in hopes of avoiding injuries late Friday night.
The entire squad worked out in front of 6,000 fans at Peachtree Ridge High School, but when Smith whistled for the hitting and full-speed blocking to begin, the starters went to the sideline.
“That’s what you want to see,” Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “Obviously the veterans aren’t going to take part in this scrimmage. You want to see those young guys come out here and compete. They’re the future of this team and maybe a couple of guys that could actually help us out this year on the field.”
Smith gave all the players Saturday off. The Falcons will practice on Sunday before taking a two-hour bus ride northwest on Monday to Dalton, where they will work for a couple of hours against the Tennessee Titans.
“You don’t know how good you are until you play someone else,” receiver Julio Jones said. “We’re very excited to go play them and see what we can bring to the table this year.”
The Falcons will be without defensive tackle Vance Walker, a three-year reserve who’s played in 42 games since 2009. Walker has an undisclosed injury and has missed the last two days of practice.
Neither Walker nor No. 2 running back Jason Snelling accompanied the team to Peachtree Ridge High. Smith said Snelling is nursing a lower leg injury, but gave no other details.
Gonzalez, a 16-year NFL veteran, enjoyed watching Atlanta’s defense mixing coverages, shifting personnel and giving the second- and third-team offenses different looks.
The Falcons were criticized for being too predictable under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Under Mike Nolan, who’s entering his 15th year as an NFL coordinator, the defense looks energized.
In a non-tackling drill that featured the first-team offense against the first-team defense, cornerback Asante Samuel jumped an inside route and intercepted quarterback Matt Ryan’s attempted pass over the middle to Jones.
“They’re going to make some big plays on defense,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously I’ve been going against Mike’s defenses, it seems like, my whole career. They try to confuse you. They’re coming from all directions, and they’re physical. They’re up in your face, and they’re going to bump you off the line of scrimmage, which offenses don’t like.”
FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan likes to undersell his athleticism in a self-deprecating manner.
The Atlanta Falcons’ fifth-year quarterback doesn’t talk much about it publicly, but Ryan is usually among the first to poke fun at his speed and arm strength.
“Matt is a very humble guy, and Matt is a better athlete than you think,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said on Monday. “We’ll just let everybody think Matt’s not a very good athlete, and I think that’s something people will find out when they play him.”
Despite a 43-19 record in the regular season, Ryan knows he will be judged on winning and losing in the playoffs. He is 0-3 in the postseason and until he guides the Falcons to a playoff victory, Ryan understands he must live with the results.
But has this assumed lack of pizazz affected his level of respect outside the Falcons’ complex? He shrugged when asked why the NFL Network last month left him off its list of top 100 players for 2012.
Thirteen quarterbacks were chosen on the list, which was compiled from votes by current NFL players. Even New York Jets backup QB Tim Tebow, at No. 95, made the list.
“I mean it’s not something I worry about or even think about for that matter,” Ryan told The Associated Press. “I know what I’m capable of doing. I’ve got complete confidence in my abilities. I know that I can make a positive impact on our team, and we can win a lot of games. Beyond that, it doesn’t much matter.”
At 6-foot-4, 217 pounds, Ryan isn’t built for speed, and he’s had to work hard lifting weights to add arm strength, but Smith isn’t concerned about his quarterback’s ability to make plays.
“He has very good awareness in the pocket,” Smith said. “Now, is he going to go 80 (yards on a run)? No, we’re not going to see that, but is he going to get you a first down when you don’t think he will get a first down? He’s done it many times. Is he going to be able to slide in the pocket to the right or to the left, step up and either throw the ball or get 5 or 6 yards and get the first down? He’s going to do that.”
With the Falcons five days into training camp, Ryan is more concerned with honing the offense’s commitment to a screen passing attack that was all but absent last season.
New coordinator Dirk Koetter is making the screen a staple of the playbook, and Ryan is delighted.
“Obviously, you can’t quite replicate pass rush in practice with what it is in a game, but we’ve been working on it really hard,” Ryan said. “I think our offensive line has done a really good job of it. They’ve taken it on themselves to be better at it and so have our (running) backs and myself. I think if it’s something that we really get it going right, it’s going to help us.”
Todd McClure, Atlanta’s 14th-year center, is more concerned with keeping his quarterback clean in the pocket.
The Falcons ranked fourth in sacks per pass attempt, but they gave up 84 quarterback hits, seventh-most in the league.
“The sacks don’t always indicate how many times he gets hit,” McClure said. “We know we’ve got to improve there. We’re working hard at it. We think we’re going to be better there this year.”
Though Koetter’s schemes also will incorporate a more vertical attack for Ryan to connect deep with receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas, McClure believes the screen game will be a big asset.
Ryan had just 68 yards passing on screens last season to rank 32nd in the NFL, and he had just 20 attempts, McClure doesn’t believe those numbers will compare this year. Koetter is committed to spreading out the defense.
“(Opponents) can’t pin their ears back and come just rush the quarterback,” McClure said. “They’ve got to be ready to defend the screen. The way we’re running them and the different screens that we have is going to be a huge weapon for us.”
Ryan will take it, with our without his perceived level of athleticism.
“I think the challenge is every day,” Ryan said. “You want to get better, you want to improve, you want to be the best you can be. That’s the only thing I worry about.”